The donkey launched itself up onto the river bank and made its way to near the small circle of rocks that was our fireplace, where it stopped and awaited the unloading of the bundle of sehalahala from its back.
The sky was darkening somewhat more than the progression of the afternoon suggested it should, and it was cool. It would be wet, and the evening fire would be warranted, and whether or not we were high enough to source leholo or lekhapo, sehalahala is best for wet conditions. So said Martin the muleteer, and we were not about to argue with him. Martin may have forgotten to bring his mealie meal on the trip (necessitating a 26km round trip on a donkey to fetch it), but somehow I still got a sense the he was the kind of guy who would keep you alive on a fishing trip this far into the mountains, if ever it came down to that.
Martin and David were our smoke makers. They would construct a pile of sehalahala each evening that would billow white smoke for long minutes before anything else happened. They typically stood in that smoke, as though bathing themselves in it somehow had a cleansing effect. I would have coughed out my left lung, and developed vicious red rings around sore eyes. Not them. They stood there with the heavy rain wetting their balaclavas and their Basutho blankets from above, while the sehalahala burst into flames, spewing sparks, and dried them from below. I guess if you were dry above your waist then you knew your fire was stronger than the rain. If you didn’t have red eyes, you knew you were a Basutho. If you were worried about a wet blanket, then you were a foreigner. Us foreigners just knew we were cold, and we lay in the back of the kitchen shelter, while supper bubbled on the gas stove.
The day had been cold and windy, with a few rain showers. Those rain showers had sent us up onto the ridge where we sheltered, as best one can, in a ruin with no roof. We made coffee there on the camp stove. At some point it brightened enough that we should have run back down to the river to see if we could spot another big brown. Good spotting light should not go wasted. But we knew that the light would be fleeting, and our legs were sore from hiking.
We were not wrong about the light. You have to decide on these trips how much chasing you are going to do. It is not difficult to overdo it. Tomorrow was another day, and maybe; just maybe; it would be a bright day, and we would have several good hours of looking down into aquamarine pools onto pale bedrock and fine gravel, where twenty five inch browns would stand out like the white flecks in the rock all around us.
We would cast out long graceful loops and land our select few, well aimed casts exactly where they needed to go. Maybe the Trout would eat, unlike the big one yesterday. Maybe the fly would hold, unlike it did the day before.
We thought of these things as we lay there in the damp grass beneath the canvas, and watched the pot boil, and watched David and Martin in the rain making smoke. We did not think about how bedraggled we looked. We didn’t think about the comments that would meet our news of blank days. We were on a trip, and there were no mirrors up there asking us to evaluate how we were doing. That would come after our return.
For now there was just smoke and rain in that happy place in the mountains.
* Sehalahala : Erica or Erica like plants that burn when green, and are used extensively in the Lesotho highlands for making a fire. Leholo and Lekhapo are variants with slightly different fire making properties.
“……..in the old days anyone with a bucket or a milk can could get a load of fingerling trout and put then wherever he wanted to, and that the first plantings done by the Division of Wildlife itself weren’t much more scientific than that. The result on the one hand was that a lot of already depleted native cutthroat fisheries were destroyed altogether by the introduction of brown, rainbow and brook trout. On the other hand, some thriving fisheries were established where before there had been no fish at all. You can apply revisionist criticism to all that if you want to – asking, Why didn’t those dumb schmucks a hundred years ago know what we know now? – but the fact is, it was mostly done with a good heart and, in some cases, the kind of monumental effort you only see from people convinced they’re doing Good Work.”
John Gierach writing in the book “In Praise of Wild Trout” , edited by Nick Lyons 1998.
Arnold Gingrich, in his book “The Joys of Trout”, said”
“Today, if we hope to angle long, it’s much more important that the angler be concerned than that he be well equipped, or well versed, or well skilled. For what matters all the tackle and techniques that we can get our hands on, or all our history and theory and lore that we can cram our heads with, if the fish are no longer there that are, after all, the object of the game?”
He wrote that in the mid seventies, and in the same section of his book, he records for posterity, the history surrounding the birth of the Theodore Gordon Fly-fishers, and its knock-on, the Federation of Flyfishers. He also lists the early stream restoration projects conducted by that organisation around the year 1964; as well as enlightening the reader on a seemingly petty scuff that resulted in the FFF and Trout Unlimited developing in separate camps.
Gingrich, it seems, was saddened by the way things developed in two silos, and expresses a wish that the two organisations might come together for the common good. He writes about “hanging together”.
History has always been important in the sense that it serves either to predict an outcome in current times, or to steer communities away from repeating an undesired chain of events. But in a world where we all seem to read less, and remember less , I get a sense that we fall into the same holes that our forebears did.
I for one, like my dusty old books, and the lessons that lie within them
Here in South Africa, we have an ostensibly environmentally concerned, but very small flyfishing community. That community fails to adequately support a national Federation (FOSAF), which as a result is limited in its breadth of activities. Coupled with that FOSAF has been forced by circumstances to dedicate nearly all its resources to the fight on Trout. It also has a dearth of younger people coming forward to volunteer their time. Then, to complete the scene, there are a few, (as far as I am aware very few), projects that seek to clear litter from rivers, monitor polluters and the like. And all this while there is insidious and seemingly perpetual pressure being placed on the wellbeing of our trout streams, and of course the environment as a whole. And to top it off, us flyfishers spend infinitely more on fly tackle than we do on conservation of our waters.
It seems that we as flyfishers could benefit from :”hanging together” a whole lot more.
The top photo is taken from the book ”Trout fishing in South Africa” issued by the South African Railways in 1916. It is of the Mooi River near the Trout Bungalow, with the Kamberg mountain and the Pimple in the background. A careful inspection suggests that the photo was manipulated. Take a look at the “Trout Bungalow” at the left. In the picture it faces the photographer. In reality it faces almost directly away from the photographer. Furthermore, the structure to the right of the building is the small garden gate that stands to this day, but in this picture its size suggests it could span the width of the river. Despite this glaring “photoshopping” that would no doubt have been done with a razor blade and glue, the panorama is significant in that it shows the wonderful expanse of undisturbed grassland. The only trees being those directly below “the pimple”, the site of the homestead on Hemyock farm.
The picture below was taken in late December 2017 ( just a few days ago). The fact that the trees are so high, caused me to take the photo from higher up the hill than the 1916 photographer did. It has to be said that the proliferation of trees is the single biggest difference between the two pictures. In fact, were it not for the tireless efforts of the farmer who owns the hillside, the picture would have been impossible, as just a few years ago the vantage point was in a thick stand of wattles.
I would have loved to have been around back in 1916, and fishing this river flowing through such lovely virgin grassland! It all remains beautiful countryside though.
This is good stuff. Pricey, but out of the top drawer!
For day to day stuff I am currently grinding “Zephyr” beans bought loose at Steampunk. That is a seriously good deal at R200/Kg.
For day to day stuff I am currently grinding “Zephyr” beans bought loose at Steampunk. That is a seriously good deal at R200/Kg.
A quote, that while I am only on the fringe of the conversation, I think will interest our flyfishing friends in the States who are deeply concerned over the public lands debate, and associated conservation issues:
“I write this here, in this section about the states, because Roosevelt’s wise administration is bringing back the ducks to the states…….
……., trout and salmon are also being rigorously protected and propagated. Reforestation will return their waters to them. And in the great national and local effort, the democratic ideal of free fishing and shooting for all who love it is fast gaining headway. If this succeeds, with our new sense of values, the United States may once again become the sportsman’s paradise. It is just possible”
From pg 28, “Going fishing” by Negley Farson, 1942
I found Mr Mbata sitting on a rock beside the road between KwaDlamini and Ndaba. He was wearing a loose coat, and baggy trousers tied at the waist with a piece of rope, in a way that accentuated his skinny frame. His face was wrinkled in the extreme and he was greying in the way that prompted me to greet him respectfully as “Kehla”, with both hands raised, as is the custom. His return greeting revealed a mouth crowded with outsized yellow teeth that appeared to have collided chaotically during a failed attempt to escape his maw. His discarded “gwaai” of Boxer tobacco rolled in newspaper, lay smoldering at his feet, giving off an aroma that took me back to my childhood days in the potato fields. Ironically, through the open gate in front of us, lay a field of potatoes. After our greeting I remarked on how good they looked, and asked if they were his. “No” he said. They belonged to the man for whom he was currently working. It hadn’t been clear to me that Mr Mbata was working. It turns out that his job was to prevent any goats or cattle entering the field through the open gate beside us. The gate (in perfect working order) lay open on account of the fact that two women, working way off in the distance, had entered that way to sow seeds in a ploughed section of the same field.
After asking after Mr Mbata’s well being, I remarked on the river that flowed silently by, just over the road from us, and on the tributary that entered the main flow a few hundred yards downstream. Mr Mbata, it turned out, knew a lot about both stretches of water. He confirmed that the name of the tributary was indeed the Mtshezana. Then he proceeded to correct me in the name of the main river, with its Zulu name, The Mtsheza. He explained the nomenclature of the suffix “ana” indicating the child of the main river, being the smaller one that joined it. All this was with hand signals and a deeply furrowed brow, which aided my painfully slow and unreliable understanding of his Zulu. The Mtshezana was often dirty, due to the ploughing that took place in the valley below Ntabamhlope from which this stream, and its own tributary, the Nkombane, flowed. The Mtsheza itself is often dirty in summer too, and we quickly arrived at an understanding that we both knew this already.
I enquired about the fish in both bodies of water. My Zulu it seems was adequate. Mr Mbata described the fish with scales. Then he described the fish with spots. I said I knew those, and liked them. Sensing my enthusiasm, he taught me his name for them. “Lungu” he said they were called. I asked him if there were “Lungu” in the Mtshezana, and he replied in an “of course there are!” manner, suggesting that perhaps he shared my enthusiasm for Lungu.
a “Lungu” from the Mtsheza below KwaDlamini
Suddenly Mbata leapt to his feet, catching me by surprise. He set his feet apart for greater stability, and then lurched forward apparently defying the fact that all the blood must have drained from above his shoulders. He swaggered into the road, while I looked on, somewhat taken aback. Then he bent over with great effort, picked up a piece of clay, and lobbed it at the goats in front of us in the road. Of course…I had clean forgotten that unlike me, Mr Mbata was at work! The goats bleated and retreated, leaving us to our important river discussions.
The fishing was good in the river, reported Mbata as he sat back down on his roadside rock, but not now. The water was too clean, and the Lungu would be able to see me. I should wait for the rains up in the mountains, and then I could attach a worm, or if I liked, a piece of meat, to a hook and throw it into the current. Then I would catch Lungu for sure. “Big ones?” I asked. “Big ones and small ones” he replied holding his gnarled hands apart and moving them backwards and forwards across a range that I expected. Clearly Mr Mbata was telling the truth, and was not prone to exaggerated fisherman stories. I liked this man.
We chatted a while about this and that. The weather. The planting date for various crops. When our conversation faltered and a silence fell, I started to bade him farewell. He quickly reached under his loose coat, and produced with pride a Nokia 3310, and asked me to enter my phone number, so that we could converse again and enjoy the long term fruits of our friendship and mutual interests. I obliged, squinting at the badly scratched screen in the bright sun in an attempt to check that I had entered my “isibongu” correctly. Then we called one another on our respective devices to test the numbers, and his old face shone in delight as our phones lit up in turn. The miracle of technology!
I bade him a final farewell, photographed the river, and drove off up the hill, deep in thought as I tried to recall all he had said, and see if I could use my closure skills to eke any more information out of his unabated string of Zulu.
“We fished these streams with a weighty sense of proprietorship, and grave recognition that we might just be the only people on earth who cared that the Trout were there at all” pg 38, Jerusalem Creek, Ted Leeson.
These words struck a chord with me when I first read them, to the extent that I immediately wrote them down in my journal. That “weighty sense of proprietorship” is exactly the feeling I get when I walk and fish my local river; a stream long forgotten by most, which I have probably written about and referred to, too much. Too much in the sense that perhaps I extoll its virtues in excess of what they really are. But after fishing there again on Sunday, and notwithstanding that the browns had a bad case of lockjaw, I am again raving about both the beauty and proximity of the place.
On the way out, my friend Ray and I stooped in at Steampunk for a brew of their good stuff, which happens to be the bean I am grinding at home at present too:
A few days back, a member of our fishing club booked to fish a fairly remote river beat on his own. The river he chose is one that does not receive as much press as better known streams.
I do not know this man.
I do know that he heads up a large corporate concern that is a household name. I can imagine that he could afford to fish anywhere he liked. He is probably well connected and could fish some private water that I would not have access to.
I do not know this man.
I do know that he once made a sizeable donation to a stream restoration project, but only on condition that his donation remain anonymous. The stream he booked to fish, is the one on which his donation was spent. We used a play on words to name a pool after him, and included it on a recently produced map of the restored stream. I don’t think he knows this. I wonder if he fished this pool……..
I saw his catch return come in. Despite high and coloured water, he persisted and caught a fair sized trout. In his catch return comment, he commended the work done on the river.
I know who this man is………he is a gentleman of the highest order.
My friend Keith had been told that there were Trout in a small tributary of the Umgeni that passes under the road a few kilometers south of Everglades Hotel.
There were no Facebook posts, no Google search results, and no Whatsapp groups that could confirm this. It was a time before all these things. There were also no newspaper articles or books on the subject. There were just a few words spoken, and that was enough.
It strikes me as a time of both innocence and inquisitiveness ,that on that information alone Keith went fishing.
Tom Sutcliffe similarly related to me a year back how Rowan Phipson took him to a small stream from the Boston side, and Tom assures me it was not a tributary of the Elands, but that it flowed towards the Umgeni.
Scanning the map, I locate a floret of sinewy waterways, many of which pass under the Boston/Dargle road, and which I must have crossed without a thought for many years. They are simply too small, and too fragile to illicit any thought of swimming fish, let alone flyfishing.
The one stream , which rises on the farm “Glandrishok” and receives flow from smaller streams flowing off Parkside, Serenity and Hazelmere, comes down into the Umgeni near the sawmill, and was labeled as “Walter’s Creek” (after the late Taffy Walters, I am going to assume) at that point by Hugh Huntley, Tom Sutcliffe and others who fished it down there. There is a roughly parallel stream that collects spider webs of water off the back of Lynwood mountain, starting up on the back of John Black’s Boston farm, and Tom confirmed that there is a second stream, every bit as strong as “Walters Creek”. Then the other day I was scanning through my treasured copy of “Fishing the Inland waters of Natal” (1936) when I spotted this map, in which a stream bears the name “Brooklands River”, and could be one of these two streams. I say “could be” because this hand drawn map has some significant and glaring errors in the path and junctions of some of the streams depicted..:
Either way, in the unnamed and long forgotten tributary that Keith fished all those years ago, he landed a big old Brown that was skinny as a snake and had teeth on it like a tigerfish. And talking of Snakes, Tom remembers that Colin Vary fished with him on the stream that Rowan Phipson took them to, and that Colin hooked a monster that jumped onto the bank of the tiny stream. When they took this and some other trout they had caught home and gutted them, one had a snake in its stomach!
In recent weeks, my friend Anton had occasion to go exploring up in that space behind Lynwood, and reports a very strong stream, with lots of potential.
Then there is the Furth stream which now lies uncovered from its veil of snarled wattles. It is a strong flowing artery of the Umgeni, linked to the main stream, which holds a healthy stock of Browns. It is horribly difficult to fish now, because of all the logs, but by no means impossible, and by next year it will be looking great after the contractor has moved through, tidying it up some more.
One’s mind wanders to the “Lahlangubo” and the “Hlambamasoka”, and the “Ncibidwana” . What about the “Mtshezana” , and “Ushiyake”?
It remains for some adventurous souls, without the comfort of prior explorations exposed on Facebook, to go and fish these things. Someone with faith that Trout persist in tiny trickles, move up re-flooded waterways, and achieve the impossible. I for one am encouraged by the stories of Tom and Keith, but also by the experience of witnessing streams re-populated after droughts and floods. Streams like the Bamboeshoekspruit, that runs dry and by the next season is producing twelve inch Trout again, and Basie Vosloo’s stream above his dam. The pleasure of uncovering unlikely Trout in delicate tributaries is the preserve of the adventurous, the curious, and the energetic. By Energetic, I mean those lacking in apathy, more than I mean someone who is physically fit. Who will get out of their armchair? Who will stop scanning Facebook and go exploring the delicate tributaries?
They are there for the picking.
I don’t know about you, but after a day which typically involves say 2 hrs in the car, 8 hrs on a river, and traversing say 7 to 12 kms of rough territory, I need a break. Call me soft, but at least half of that “traversing” involves getting in and out of the stream, boulder hopping, and scrambling, and it is normally with a pack on my back that is heavier than it need be. To add to that, I may have fished for 8 hrs and driven for 2, but the number of hours between when I left home and got back seems to end up around 13 hrs. I guess there is time in coffee shops, talking to locals, setting up, and the like.
It is a long day.
But the day following such a foray involves a late start, a big breakfast, and I confess, sometimes not getting out of a pair of slippers!
This is why I like to fish on Saturdays.
My rest day is then spent filling in a logbook, editing photos, downloading GPS tracks and the like.
This last Sunday I cleaned all my floating lines, re-tied and glued a line to leader connection, and re-darkened the tips of my fly lines with a permanent marker. I didn’t get to tie flies, but I emptied the fly patch, adjusted some of the stuff that I hang from, and bury in my pack-vest, and topped it off by cooking a curry so hot that not even the dog wouldn’t try it.
Putting the curry aside for a while, I re-looked at my pack. I had straps that hang and snag, so I rolled them up and pinned them. I had a fly patch that was catching on things, so I put it in a pocket. My zinger was hanging the nippers too low out of their tuck-away sleeve, and I found a second zinger to try putting my New Zealand strike indicator tool into a spare sleeve port. The egg yarn I first used as strike indicator material the day before, and which kept sinking, was removed and replaced with some fresh Antron.
I tied some tippet rings on the end of my treasured flat butt leaders to make them last longer, and I re-tied fresh tippets, with UV glue in the loose surgeon’s knot before I pulled it tight.
I cleared the GPS memory and made space on the camera card while charging the battery.
On Saturday I will hit the river again, and I will be tackled up before my mate.
I like my rest days.